Co-living: the new urban housing?

First-Time Discussion on Student Housing Co-Living in Europe at The Class Conference – Vienna

This year’s The Class Conference in Vienna will include a panel discussion with Charlie MacGregor (The Student Hotel), Reza Merchant (The Collective), Bruno Haid (ROAM), and Joop de Boer (PopupCity) on the topic of co-living. This will be the first such discussion with a focus on co-living and European student housing. For a taste of the discussion to come, we invite you to read Panellist Joop de Boer’s article on co-living in this year’s The Class of 2020 Trend Report. Click here to join the discussion on 3 November in Vienna!

Communal living concepts beyond the university dorm

Throughout the 20th century, home ownership was a sign of success, an achievable goal for those who worked hard. Since the millennium, however, the market has proven more cynical, and the 25-35-year-olds of today have become known as ‘generation rent’. To afford to live in the city, this demographic has to find innovative new solutions for urban dwelling, say Joop de Boer and Haley Roeser.

ZOKU Amsterdam © ZOKU

Urban living for ‘generation rent’

While millennials may have been locked out of their parents’ dream of owning a home, the fantasy itself has also disappeared. People are settling down later and spending more money on travel and experiences, often feeling weighed down by the notion of owning property.

Looking for new forms of living that better reflect changes in the economy – and in society – co-living platforms offer alternative housing options in an otherwise archaic market.

In its essence, co-living combines the basics of flat share-style living with upgraded services and amenities. These amenities can range from co-working spaces and laundry services all the way to cinemas and saunas. In addition, these platforms tend to be centred on community, and promise a socially fulfilling lifestyle in some of the world’s most prominent cities.

Here, housing is positioned as a service rather than a product, and by offering luxury services and a unique living experience, this flexible framework attempts to outweigh the trade-off of minimal private space.

Come for the culture, stay for the community

While co-living platforms are becoming increasingly popular, the idea is far from new. Collective living has a long history on a global scale. Ranging from 1970s American commune-style living to longstanding wohngemeinschaft projects in Germany, the idea of living among likeminded individuals is hardly innovative. However, the concept has been much updated and upgraded since, reflecting current lifestyle trends ­– which of course vary greatly from those of 50 years ago. Previously the preserve of hippies, communal housing is now dominated by itinerant workers, reflecting major changes within the workforce.

With the increase of freelancers, contract workers, entrepreneurs and other so-called ‘global nomads’, those working in the creative industries especially are much less tied to specific locations and working hours. This rising itinerant workforce is location-independent and can work from almost anywhere – so long as there is reliable WiFi. While companies used to dictate where people lived, this too has shifted as people spend less time in physical offices. Young creatives are flocking to vibrant locations for experiences and services rather than for specific job offers. On the negative side, because the workspace has been eliminated as a site of social interaction, many such people are struggling to make meaningful connections within their environment. Co-living platforms seek to combat this by integrating a sense of community into their very structure.


Modern tribal living

Copenhagen-based platform Nest has been using this model to create community for almost three years now. Started by entrepreneurs, Nest was created to “socially hack the entrepreneurial lifestyle for like-minded people”, says resident and chairman Analisa Winther. The platform requires all applicants to have a high-level entrepreneurial background, with the average candidate having seven years of start-up experience. Winther emphasises the organic knowledge sharing that occurs within the community, and even reveals that 56% of Nesters have worked together on a start-up since moving in. “Within the start-up community there’s a huge problem, as everyone is so competitive,” she says. “Nest sees much more value in the community itself and the value of living with people who understand where you’re coming from.”

Sharing a meal at WeLive, New York © WeLive

The cost of convenience

With 550 bedrooms, The Collective is the largest co-living facility in the world. The building, tucked away in London’s Old Oak, offers enough services that residents shouldn’t have to leave if they don’t want to. By integrating co-working spaces, a cinema, a spa and laundry services, as well as dining spaces, The Collective promises a social environment where community thrives within its 11 floors.

While The Collective is one of the most luxurious co-living platforms to date, it does raise questions about how we live. While the building offers nearly endless communal areas, when it comes to personal space, the bedrooms are only ten square metres, emphasising design priorities to “minimise space for maximum use”.

Instead, convenience is the selling point of The Collective. Convenience is one of the primary ways in which “generation rent” structure their daily lives. Co-living takes this idea and restructures housing along the same principles: bypassing long-term rental agreements, these platforms make it easy for people to stay for a single night or a calendar year. Residents are provided with a homely furnished bedroom, often complete with a bed that’s always made for them.

When it comes to location, convenience is structured around the provision of reasonably priced housing options in out-priced cities. And people are increasingly turning to these co-living platforms as a way to live in cities while still being able to afford to enjoy them. As the world’s most desirable cities become increasingly expensive, people are forced to pick and choose their lifestyle priorities; “having it all” no longer seems as tenable as it once did.

The Collective Old Oak, London © WCEC Architects

Having more by having less

Although millennials have grown up amidst global financial crises, this has had little effect in deterring their desire for the finer things in life. As the world becomes increasingly connected, information and ideas are shared faster than ever – and millennials can’t stand to miss out. Under a framework of “access not ownership”, there is a new potential to try the best of everything, without the burdens of (bad) investment. This ideology is best exemplified within the media industry, where we’ve seen a stark drop in CD and DVD sales, and a correlating up-spike in streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix. In the physical world, we’ve seen the rise of services such as neighbourhood “tool libraries”, where rather than each home investing in expensive tools they may only need every few years, a membership fee gives borrowing rights on an as-needed basis.

Co-living platforms simply connect these notions to the housing market, and reconsider how best to integrate shared services within the sector. Some platforms have even gone so far as to embrace the urban mobility market by combining car- and bike-share services. While not all platforms go this far, basic homeware is available for sharing as standard, and kitchen, living and bathroom spaces have all been communalised.

Shared kitchen at The Student Hotel © The Student Hotel

The only hope for the housing market?

As co-living takes its position in the housing market, a new lifestyle is introduced that fits the needs of a new breed of urban dwellers. For this next generation, convenience is maximised with comfortable communities already in place and managed in advance. Consequently, given that co-living minimises private space in favour of the communal, acceptance of smaller living at elevated prices becomes a byproduct. In terms of the housing market, co-living seeks to offer opportunities where there is little hope. “We are not solving the crisis, but we are building and offering alternatives,” says James Scott, chief operations officer at The Collective.

Rather than forcing out global nomads, cities should be taking notes and embracing the cultural benefits brought about by this demographic. As key trend-drivers of the economy, millennials are leading the way in the formation of new urban communities. Organised by specific interests, demographics or even lines of work, these new communities replace the standard idea of traditional neighbourhoods. Consolidating the scale of community from the street level to a compact building, co-living streamlines interactions through systemic convenience. But idealised as they are, the rise of these platforms is still a relatively recent trend and has only gained popularity within the last few years. Observing from ground level, only time will tell if these buildings will collapse or become monumental in reshaping our urban housing framework.

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